For Meaningful Lasting Results, Get Into the Weeds…and Identify Root Causes

fishing weeds

I have over the years often heard the term “we need to get out of the weeds and solve this problem” I have even heard “I don’t want to hear the problem give me the solutions!” Whatever happened to Charles Kettering‘s idea that; “A problem well stated is a problem half-solved?”

Getting out of the weeds is a metaphor used to describe the finite details of problems by those who want quick solutions to progressive and evolving problems while avoiding the down and dirty analysis required to discover the root causes of a host of problems we face in policing, (i.e. execution in handling crisis, officer safety, lack of sound and adaptable tactical problem solvers, full spectrum cops who understand the moral, mental and physical dimensions of policing, self-aware cops with the open-mindedness to get beyond the us v. them mentality all too prevalent in today’s police culture, poor morale and the lack of working together, culture of decentralization verses centralized control, etc. etc. etc.).

What we need to do is, get into the weeds and identify current conditions that bring things in context and add relevance to all involved. Why are we talking about a specific problem? What are we trying to accomplish? What critical questions need to be answered and how is the problem relevant to the organization as a whole? We have to dig into past events or actions that surround the current problem we are trying to solve and leverage the lessons learned. “There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all” is how Peter Drucker put it. Once we have identified the problem: a gap between a current situation and an expectation or outcome we seek we can classify the problem. Is it a preventative or something we are trying to prevent from happening? Is it a something we are trying to incrementally improve upon or is it problem a certain standard the organization is struggling to maintain? Then we can analyze the contributing factors and identify root causes of the problem. Then identify what our goals are or the target conditions we seek. What specific changes do we seek and who will implement them? Then implement steps to continually improve upon whatever problem, process, policy, procedure, strategy, tactic etc., that’s the focus. When you get into the weeds you focus on improving results by looking at the causes or as W. Edwards Deming put it”

“Certainly we want good results, but management by results is not the way to get good results. Work on the causes of results.”

Part of the reason why we want quick fixes to most everything is that, most cops appear to have a greater bias towards action, but struggle with identifying and setting up problems. This bias for action is prevalent because people in our profession are programed (through leadership and training) to believe they have to solve problems NOW! We rely on what we feel we do best “high diddle, diddle straight up the middle” and charge towards the sound of the guns or any other problem that arises, with the utmost speed, whether this type of action is warranted or not. Yes at times there is great honor in this! Yes there are times for that type of action! But it’s not all the time or even the majority of the time! Quite frankly that type of action should be a rare occurrence even in the police world. As Abraham Harold Maslow said, “It is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.” Something perhaps the police culture should think more deeply about?

Our culture has a lot to do with this. Policing profession is made up of folks who are action oriented and who focus greatly on a bias for action bypassing reflection or why they are doing, what it is they are doing. This action oriented approach becomes habit forming and the propensity to decide and act (DA) in the absence of a good orientation, is real and something all cops should be concerned with. This shows an overemphasis in our thinking and learning cycles, disaggregating a balanced thought processes and potentially leading to failure. With this in mind, it is apparent that when training better decision making into any profession, ones focus of effort should be on how we engage in improving the entire OODA Loop or thought process so that we balance a bias for reflection with the bias for action based on the unfolding conditions, time and risk.

Balancing Thinking Fast with Thinking Slow

In spontaneous situations like a sudden assault or ambush this bias for action helps in winning on the street in this type of sudden and unexpected encounter. The problem is that these types of encounters are rare yet we pigeonhole the rapid action mindset into almost everything we do and I mean almost everything. So there is a balancing act here. We don’t want to be in the weeds on every issue. This would lead to micro-management and stifled initiative. But identifying problems and diagnosing them matters.

An example, funny (in a foolish way), but it represents the mindset and “bias for action:”

One night while working the 4-12 shift I radioed to an officer to swing back into the station to see me and within a 4 minutes he was there “LT what do you need?” we discussed what I needed which was nothing of major concern and certainly not life threatening. I did not give it much thought until I was approach by another officer telling me “I needed to talk with officer so and so because he is driving to damn fast all over town and he is either going to get hurt or hurt someone else.” I asked him to elaborate somewhat and he said for example you just asked him to come in and see you and HE was at a red light at a major intersection (4 lane roadway, 50MPH speed limit) when I watched him flip his blue lights on and cross the highway going through the red light and then accelerated to a high rate of speed to see you.”

You may be saying to yourself “what the hell, this guys is a unique cop with no common sense” I use to think similarly but the reality is we all do this or things similar to this, way too often. Problem is its dangerous not only for the obvious reason laid out in my simple example above and the officer created jeopardy it creates on the street. It has us rushing almost everything we do, looking for a quick fix to technical/adaptive problems that may require time and diagnosis. Things like organizational strategy and how we get officers, shifts detectives and administration to communicate more effectively so we can solve some of the long-term and more progressive evolving or chronic problems in the community.

People feel pressure to solve problems quickly, so they minimize the time spent diagnosing and exploring the situations that may identify multiple interpretations and options that may get to a successful outcome. In their book “The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World” the authors state:

“The single most important skill and most undervalued capacity for exercising adaptive leadership is diagnosis. In most companies and societies, those who have moved up the hierarchy into senior positions of authority are naturally socialized and trained to be good at taking action and decisively solving problems. There is no incentive to wade knee-deep into the murky waters of diagnosis, especially if some of the deeper diagnostic possibilities will be unsettling to people who look to you for clarity and certainty. Moreover when you are caught up in the action, it is hard to do the diagnostic work of seeing the larger patterns in the organization or community. People who look to you for solutions have a stake in keeping you focused on what is right in front of your eyes: the phone calls and emails to be answered, the deadlines to be met, the tasks to be completed.”

So much of adaptive leadership is a repetition of exploring and probing OODA Loops: you try something, see how it goes, learn from what happened, and then adapt and try something else. You adapt your options to the individuals involved and the unique and constantly evolving characteristics of the situation facing you. Like fishing for the big one sometimes you have to cast that line, into the weeds, or get into the narrow section of the river surrounded by trees and overgrown brush that makes casting and retrieving difficult. You have to mix in with the environment and learn how to maneuver as you gather information that later becomes actionable. You get all snarled up and frustrated in the details laid right out there in front of you but you know what the opportunities are at improving your chances of success. Yes you can move to open water, or the wider section of the river, where the casting and retrieving looks easier and free of snarls and obstacles, BUT if you take the easy path, are you going to get, I mean really get the results “meaningful and lasting results ” you want?

Stay Oriented!